Sunday, December 30, 2007

Facing the end-game

Bangkok Post, Perspective >> Sunday December 30, 2007

Facing the end-game

Unless the international community pushes for modification of the junta's political roadmap, a continuation of the conflict in Burma is a certainty, writes MIN ZIN

Recent weeks have been frustrating for Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's democracy icon. Hope of starting political dialogue with the regime's supremo, Senior General Than Shwe, is now dim.

Although there was an agreement to hold weekly meetings every Monday between Suu Kyi and government liaison minister Aung Kyi, the regime has gone back on its word. No meeting has taken place between Suu Kyi and Aung Kyi since November 19. Moreover, the military's promise of allowing two liaison officials from her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to see her regularly has yet to be realised.

"Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been trying very hard to keep the communication channel open," said a senior party official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. "She even plans to give a positive response to the preconditions of junta leader Senior General Than Shwe. But the regime has simply ignored her."

The frustration is now spreading within the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Burma during his recent trip to Asia that the international community expects to see some productive developments. "I know the international community is very much impatient, and our patience is running out," Ban said in Bangkok.

Meanwhile, the junta is sending mixed signals to the international community. In his official briefing on November 6, Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, a staunch junta hardliner, told UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari that the government's cooperation with the UN could be jeopardised if his performance were viewed to be "unfair and one-sided." Kyaw Hsan told Gambari straight that "your opportunity to play a constructive role in the matter may be in harm's way."

However, when Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein received Gambari on the following day, the general reiterated his government's full confidence in and support for the secretary-general's good offices.

"The prime minister invited me to return to Myanmar - in his words - 'again, again and again'," Gambari said at a briefing to the UN Security Council on November 13.

Moreover, as a gesture in response to the UN's persistent demand for an inclusive constitutional process, Thein Sein told Gambari that the government would allow him to meet with its Constitutional Drafting Commission to discuss ways of broadening the constitutional process.

On the other hand, at his press conference on December 3, Kyaw Hsan said that the government's 54-member commission for drafting the new constitution is sufficient for the task.

"No assistance or advice from other persons is required," he said, adding that "it is not reasonable or fair to amend those principles adopted by the delegates (of the National Convention)." Kyaw Hsan ruled out the possibility of a role for the opposition to play in the constitutional drafting process, which constitutes the highly important first three stages of the regime's "Seven Step Roadmap to Democracy".

In fact, the military is testing the response of the international community by sending out such mixed messages. If the international community, especially China and Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), takes a passive stand or backs down, the regime will push forward with a hardline stance. When Asean caved in to the demands of the regime by not allowing Gambari to give a Burma briefing at the Asean summit in November, hardliners in Rangoon celebrated their victory and started scratching the regular scheduled meetings with Suu Kyi.

"Burma's military leadership is just trying to do the absolute minimum transition and reconciliation possible," Priscilla Clapp, a US diplomat who served as chief of mission in Burma from 1999-2002, told this writer. "They will continue with their seven step plan, moving very slowly, and wait for the international community to lose interest and turn the other way."

'Not too late'

However, some analysts and activists believe that the junta's roadmap' could still be a viable option for Burma's transition if it were modified to become inclusive and time-bound. They think that the junta is resisting, not rejecting, the possibility of accommodation.

"It is not too late yet. If the international community could push the regime to open up the constitutional drafting process before a national referendum, the fourth stage of the seven-step plan, we still have time to find common ground for negotiation for Burma's political transition," said Dr Thaung Tun, UN representative of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the Burmese government in exile. In fact, this is just what 92 elected members of Parliament from inside Burma called for in August 2007. They urged the regime to modify the roadmap, which is now aimed at legalising military supremacy in Burma's future.

The elected MPs said that if the regime made it inclusive, they would like to cooperate and find a political solution within the roadmap framework. Almost all major political and ethnic groups in Burma have agreed with the political proposal of the 92 elected MPs.

This is also in line with the UN's persistent demand as Gambari made clear when he said: "The Secretary-General did not reject the seven step roadmap and what he would like to suggest were inclusiveness and a time frame."

However, if the regime refused to modify the roadmap and continued its unilateral plan, the nature of Burma's conflict would become zero-sum. The 92 elected MPs have vowed to oppose the junta's sham constitution and to educate and organise the people of Burma to vote against it in the referendum.

Pro-democracy grassroot activists inside Burma as well as abroad also declare that the regime's planned referendum will be showdown time for Burma if the military fails to modify the roadmap. They say there will be almost no chance to reverse legalisation of military domination after a referendum, since the next three steps will be to "(5) hold free and fair elections; (6) convene elected bodies and (7) create government organs instituted by the legislative body."

"The principles of the constitution drafted by the military are laid out with the premise and concept that the 'military is the master and civilians are slaves',"said Tun Myint Aung, a leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, speaking from his hideout inside Burma. "We are now preparing to educate the people and launch a 'No Vote Campaign' against the referendum."

Some analysts even argue that another mass protest against the junta may break out before the referendum, as a combination of poverty and repression fuels the public's anger. No matter whether or not the opposition activists succeed in derailing the military's roadmap with mass protests, the nature and consequences of the conflict in Burma will be devastating, with more violent crackdowns and human suffering. The international community must be aware of this grim scenario and act resolutely to prevent it.

Min Zin is an independent Burmese journalist.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Dissidents and the Fight for Freedom"

"Dissidents and the Fight for Freedom"
Featuring Václav Havel, Former President of the Czech Republic
Library of Congress, February 20, 2007

Bio: Min Zin has been involved in Burma's prodemocracy movement since 1988. He joined the movement as a fourteen-year-old high school activist and founded a nationwide high school students union. During his time in the prodemocracy movement, he worked closely with National League for Democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, including delivering speeches with Suu Kyi in various townships around Burma's capital Rangoon. In 1989, Min Zin was forced into hiding and began what was to be a nine-year existence inside Burma's underground movement. Following the December 1996 student demonstrations in Burma, Min Zin's security situation deteriorated to the point where he finally decided it was too dangerous to continue living in Burma and subsequently fled to the Thai-Burma border in September 1997. After working in Thailand for a number of years, including serving as deputy editor of The Irrawaddy magazine, he came to the United States, where he now works as an International Radio Broadcaster in the Burmese Service of Radio Free Asia.

Remarks: First, I would like to thank the event organizers for giving me this wonderful opportunity. It is my great honored to be invited to talk about Burma and its democratic struggle-especially its moral connection to President Havel.

Actually, Mr. Havel has been familiar to Burmese people since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK) in her speeches repeatedly elaborated Mr. Havel's teachings-the idea of the power of powerless. But I would say that Mr. Havel has gained nationwide respect in Burma, not because of DASSK, but- ironically -because of military dictators.

It happened when Mr. Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu jointly published a report entitled "Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma". The report provided a powerful new direction in international effort to bring democracy in Burma.

We all know that there have been 16 consecutive resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly and 13 consecutive resolutions by the Commission on Human Rights on Burma, as well as several UN Special Envoys calling for national reconciliation in Burma. Moreover, Secretary General Kofi Annan has said he was "concerned," then "increasingly concerned," then "gravely concerned" about the situation in Burma. But these efforts and voices fell on the regime's deaf ear. The military regime continues its catalogue of crimes against humanity: imprisonments of over 1,200 political prisoners including DASSK, thousands of civilians being pushed into forced labor, more child soldiers than any other country in the world, about 3,000 villages destroyed in ethnic minority areas of eastern Burma since 1996, the use of rape as a weapon in the ethnic conflicts throughout the country, millions of refugees and internally displaced people within the country and across the borders of neighboring countries-to name but a few.

That's why the Havel-Tutu report proposed a UN Security Council resolution that would compel the regime to work with the Secretary General towards national reconciliation - beginning with the release of political prisoners, stop atrocities in ethnic minority areas and start political dialogue with democratic oppositions. Havel and Tutu did not call for sanctions and just called for the effective multi-lateral engagement to be applied through the council. In one word, the report proposes a practical alternative between inaction and sanctions.

When the report came out in Sept 2005, the regime made a series of desperate reactions. You can imagine that the State-run media was flooded with government statements, speeches, articles denouncing the report of Mr. Havel and Bishop Tutu. But when the government made these statements public, they also made public almost all of the details of the report. In other words, the public had the opportunity to read and listen to a translation of the report. That's why I said the regime has made Mr. Havel highly respected and popular among Burmese people.

We, the outside media such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and BBC, broadcast the news about how DASSK's election winning party, ethnic minority parties, and ethnic resistance groups all welcome the Havel-Tutu initiative. We run stories of how ordinary people inside Burma would like to see the UN Security Council (UNSC)'s constructive involvement in Burma.
As we all know, the U.S. translated the Havel-Tutu report into action. The U.S. managed to put Burma in the UNSC's agenda in September 2006. But when it called for a vote in January 2007 on a non-punitive Burma resolution, China and Russia vetoed against it. This setback has shattered the hopes of Burmese people for a smooth, and over due, democratic transition in their country with the help of the UNSC. Recently, the leader of the Karen ethnic women group, which has just issued a report about widespread rape in their villages committed by the Burmese military, told us (the media) that the Chinese and Russian vetoes encourage the regime to rape more women in their villages. One prominent activist also says that the vetoes grant the regime "a license to kill" people of Burma.

But don't get them wrong-they don't dwell on being victimized. They have shown tremendous courage and unyielding determination to fight for their freedom. DASSK is a shinning example. And not only DASSK, but also Min Ko Naing and other student leaders who, having spent over 16 years in military gulags, were released in the past two years and have re-engaged in nonviolent resistance against the regime inside Burma. There are also labor activists, lawyers, and Buddhist monks working together to fight against enormous injustice and to bring a political solution to the country's crisis. They all have done these things facing the threat of imprisonment, torture, and the loss of their livelihoods.

Burmese people know that they have to rely on themselves to free their country. But they also appreciate the importance of international solidarity. They feel gratitude to people like Mr. Havel for their moral leadership in the struggle for freedom, and they are also very thankful to countries like the U.S. for mobilizing international consensus and action to bring democracy in Burma. They expect that with the leadership of U.S. and the persistent moral support from Mr. Havel, Burma's resolution will be passed by the UNSC. This would give the Burmese people a great moral boost as well as political space for their courageous drive for democracy.
Before I came here for this speech, I contacted several political leaders as well as ordinary people alike asking what message they want to convey to this respectful audience. They answered by repeating what DASSK has said:

Please use your liberty to promote ours.

Thank you!